December 8, 2021, PHILADELPHIA – William A. Beltran, DVM, MSc, PhD, professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) and David M. Gamm, MD, PhD, professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine and Public Health have been awarded CAD$725,000 from Fighting Blindness Canada’s Restore Vision 20/20 program to continue their ground-breaking research into cell replacement therapy for retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited retinal disease.
The goal of this project is to test if a new stem cell therapy can improve vision in canine models of retinitis pigmentosa. The team will use induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and attempt to replace damaged photoreceptors with new healthy, functioning photoreceptors. If these preclinical experiments are successful, it could lead to the launch of a clinical trial to test this potential treatment for retinitis pigmentosa in people. The research team includes Geoffrey Aguirre, MD, PhD, at the University of Pennsylvania; Shaoquin Gong, PhD and Zhenqiang Ma, PhD, both at the University of Wisconsin; and Kapil Bharti, PhD, at the National Eye Institute.
“We are truly thankful to Fighting Blindness Canada and its donors for their continuous support of our University of Wisconsin-University of Pennsylvania retinal cell therapy consortium”, said Beltran. “During the past three years we have improved the production of iPSC-derived photoreceptor precursor cells, improved their delivery, and increased their survival time following transplantation in naturally-occurring large animals with end stage retinal degeneration. These highly encouraging results now set the stage to further improve retinal integration and monitor signs of vision restoration. If we are successful at developing this cell therapy for people, then there will be hope that a similar approach could be used one day to treat dogs with end stage progressive retinal atrophy”.
Beltran joined Penn Vet in 2006 as assistant professor of Ophthalmology. He was appointed associate professor of Ophthalmology in 2012, named director of the Division of Experimental Retinal Therapies in 2017, and appointed professor of Ophthalmology in 2018. His research focuses on inherited retinal degeneration, a major cause of blindness in dogs and humans worldwide. Specifically, he has investigated the signaling pathways affected by X-linked retinitis pigmentosa and autosomal dominant retinitis pigmentosa, two of the most common forms of inherited retinal degeneration in man. Working in canines, who suffer from forms of retinal degeneration that closely mimic the human diseases, he has helped develop effective gene therapies with promising results for treating both early- and late-stage disease.
A board-certified Diplomate of the European College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists, Beltran earned his veterinary degree at the University of Paris and Veterinary School of Maisons-Alfort, France, his MSc in biological and medical sciences at the University of Paris, and his PhD in comparative biomedical sciences from Cornell University. He has previously received a Merck/Merial Veterinary Research Award, a Foundation Fighting Blindness Board of Directors Award, the Merck Innovative Ophthalmology Research Award, and was awarded Inventor of the Year in 2019 from the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Center for Innovation. In 2020, he was elected to the National Academy of Medicine.